city hall exterior

Billings City Council chambers.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

The Billings City Council needs the best, most comprehensive information available to make good decisions on annexations and developments. Growth issues regularly come before the council, bringing the promise of benefits and costs. Our city council needs the best tools to discern how growth proposals will affect our community.

That’s why the question of doing a cost of service study is a no-brainer. As the council and city staff evaluate developments, they should know how the proposals would affect the local tax base and the cost of providing public services, such as street maintenance, parks, police and fire protection.

Billings has used similar studies for years on water and sewer service rates. Those services run as enterprise funds that must generate all their own revenue from customer fees.

A cost of services study isn’t a “no growth” and “no development tool,” the city staff noted in a presentation to the council Tuesday night.

The study “won’t be a silver bullet, but it will add to the tool box and give us more information to make decisions,” Planning and Community Services Director Wyeth Friday said. Friday added that citizens commenting on the city’s growth policy in 2015 said they “want mixed-use neighborhoods, predictable and reasonable taxes and effective, reasonably priced government services.”

A cost of services study would provide data to help the council meet those goals.

If the city had unlimited money to spend, there would be no need for a cost of services study. But because citizens — particularly property owners — have to pay for all city services, Billings really needs to know the costs in advance. A cost of services study could, for example, help the city calculate the public expense involved with various densities of housing development. The study could provide information on the city’s return on investment: the tax revenue generated minus the cost of services.

The study wouldn’t make the decisions for the council; it would help the council make better-informed decisions.

The price of the study under discussion is estimated to be $25,000 to $75,000. It would be money well spent to know how growth affects city finances. Having reliable cost data would also help assure citizens that costs are being shared equitably. Making more data public would increase taxpayer confidence that the city is weighing decisions for the long term, not just saying “yes” or “no” based on brief meeting presentations.

The council should authorize a cost of services study because Billings citizens deserve to know:

  • How the predicted property tax return of residential, commercial and mixed-use development compares to the cost of serving the development.
  • How development patterns and the way services are funded affect cost distribution across the community.
  • Whether police and fire service levels are adequate now and what will be needed in the future with development and growth patterns.